it is in those first few, terrible months after the war where they are clumsy and awkward with each other that jeffrey mumbles something under his breath and albert, incredulous, asks him to repeat himself, because surely he must have misheard.
“i said,” jeffrey begins again, sounding almost aggrieved; he doesn’t look up to meet albert’s eyes, “my ma wants you over for christmas this year.”
something in albert’s chest tightens and then releases, leaving him feeling short of breath. he had known, distantly, that jeffrey’s family lived in belvidere- jeff went and visited every few days, took dinner with them at least thrice a week- but he’d never met them. sometimes, jeffrey would begin some grand tale about one of his sisters, or a brother, and then stop with a queer look on his face.
albert has never questioned it; some men, he’d learned, preferred to keep their secrets close to their chest.
“okay,” he says, thinking that he’ll regret it almost immediately.
frances davis is a loud, effusive woman, sheer presence dwarfing her diminutive size. she all but throws open the door when jeffrey and albert come trudging up the porch some few weeks later, her face lit with joy, mousy hair messily pinned. she is, in appearance, the opposite of her eldest son; where jeffrey was tall and gangly, frances was a short, stout woman of seemingly endless surety.
“jeffrey nathaniel!” she exclaims as she bustles them both in from the cold, grabbing at jeff so she could kiss him on both cheeks. jeff grins and humors her, even weeps her up into a grand hug that makes her laugh. “come in, come in, i can feel the ice on you!”
albert can’t help but stand aside, feeling awkward, out of place. in life his own mother had not been so warm, worn down by years of hunger and hardship, and his step-father had seen him as little more than a burden; albert had worked hard to earn his keep, even within his own family. within jeffrey’s family, it seemed, love was unconditional.
“mama,” he hears jeff say, voice warm enough that it does something uncomfortable to his insides, “this’s albert.”
and then frances is turning her attention to him and he offers a smile, small, almost unsure, thinking, she has green eyes, before she drags him into a bone-breaking hug, kissing his cheek just as she had done with her son. “it’s so good to finally meet you,” she tells him as his hands settle awkwardly on her back, patting gently. “welcome to the family, dear.”
jeffrey is grinning when they part, his expression brilliant with it, and frances is all but bullying them both out of their coats and from the main hall into what she affectionately calls the ‘sitting room’. there are three girls seated there, among a mess of pillows in front of the fire, the eldest of them holding a young child in her lap. they all turn as one when they enter the room and the youngest springs up to her feet.
“jeffy!” she shrieks, running at them, and albert takes a reflexive step back. jeffrey, however, is undaunted, scooping her up and spinning her around with a laugh, much as he had done with albert in those damned woods in blasted mississippi. between her giggles, with her arms locked around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder, the girl says, “happy christmas!”
the other two girls have risen, by this point, and albert knows none of their names; a part of him feels guilty, though there’s no reason for him to feel so. “girls, this’s albert,” frances says with all the poise and steel and warm affection that only a matriarch could, “albert dear, this right here’s charlotte, anna, fanny, and the baby’s nathaniel.”
“charlie,” corrects the eldest girl, looking albert over from head to toe. he can hear a faint not a baby as jeff grabs for the little boy, blowing raspberries onto his cheeks, seemingly oblivious to or uncaring of albert’s plight, surrounded by davis women. the girl- charlie, of a height or perhaps a smidge taller than albert- gestures to the middle girl, more shy, and says, “that’s annie. you were in the war, too, weren’t you?”
albert opens his mouth to respond, floundering and out of his depth, but frances seems to choose that moment to intervene, herding all six of them- six! good lord, what a woman- into the kitchen, bustling, her skirts swishing about her ankles. charlie, blissfully, lets her question lie.
the table is too small for all of them to sit but jeff catches his arm anyway, flashes a crooked smile as he drags albert into the creaky chair next to his own. he can feel his own heartbeat as he smiles back.
“now, your daddy’ll be back in the mornin’,” frances is telling jeffrey as she moves all the dishes on to the table- a pot of stew, venison or possibly beef, empty bowls and a browned loaf of bread- and albert can’t remember the last time he sat in for a family dinner. “he had to head to the jamisons’, y’know, pick up the sugar we’d bought a week ago, but i told him, i said lawrence, if it starts snowin’, you’re gonna wait until the roads’re cleared, you ain’t gonna try takin’ the poor horse through that.”
she had babbled through her work, filling and distributing each bowl, rapping albert’s knuckles when he reached out to help. jeffrey had looked all to amused as albert sunk back into his seat, hand cradled to his chest. he leans in as if imparting some great secret and albert fights not to sway towards him. “just let ‘er go,” he says in a loud whisper, obviously meant to be overheard, “she’s like a train; can’t stop once she’s got goin’.”
“i can think of someone else like that, too,” albert says, but he’s grinning, warmed, his hands folded in his lap.
it’s late by the time everything is cleaned up, the dishes scrubbed and put away. albert and jeffrey are both stripped to shirtsleeves, cuffs rolled to their elbows, hands chilly and chapped; charlie observes, frances having ushered the other children off to bed. albert makes some comment- he’s not sure what, doesn’t remember the words- but jeff laughs, loud and full-bodied, and charlie’s giggle sounds a moment later, like the chime of bells.
“mama had us bring down all the spare bedding,” she says, rising, and albert tugs his cuffs back down around his wrists, flexes his fingers. “there’s no extra beds, so you boys’re gonna be in the sitting room,” she says the words with some sort of irony, “but we’ll be quiet in the mornin’, don’t worry about it.”
but she stops albert in the threshold, a hand on his arm, then leans in to press a sound kiss to his cheek, flouncing away and up the stairs before he can demand an explanation. he touches his cheek, looks to jeffrey with a question.
“why — ”
“mistletoe,” is what jeff replies with, taking a half-step towards him before pausing, seeming almost sheepish. albert looks up and, sure enough, a sprig of mistletoe was hung from the doorframe, green leaves and rich red berries. albert swallows thickly.
“mistletoe,” he repeats, and they stand there for a moment awkward, watching each other, before albert sighs. “c’mere, jeff.”
and jeffrey moves towards him because of course he does, they’ve always been caught up in each other’s orbits, but he stops just short of the doorway, hesitating; there’s something strange about his expression, something almost reluctant. albert knows about the ways he’s held himself back, these past few months, hasn’t missed the times that jeffrey will brace himself to say something and then stop abruptly.
and it hurts, sometimes, the absence of the easiness that they’d had before. he misses the way they had been, their friendship, that strange sense of possibility. he feels it now, though, something warm between his ribs, something hopeful. he sees it in jeff’s eyes, too.
albert reaches for jeff’s hand, and pulls him under the mistletoe.